Dunkirk vs Darkest Hour: Both Oscar-nominated films view same historical episode through different lenses

Devansh Sharma

Feb 20, 2018 11:25:42 IST

"History is written by the victors."

"History will be kind to me because I intend to write it."

"In history lies all the secrets of statecraft."

Reading between these lines said by former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, it will not be a stretch to judge who won the war, who wrote the history and who allegedly, and with a rather proud yet veiled submission, manipulated history.

Keeping aside the allegations of blowing out of proportion the intensity of the Holocaust to depict Germany in bad light (and in turn glorifying their World War II opponents including the UK), Churchill was also accused of undermining the horrors and struggles of his army, particularly in case of the Dunkirk evacuation.

This year, two period dramas, nominated for the Best Film Category at the 90th Academy Awards, look at the historic Dunkirk episode, though through completely different lenses.

While the political POV is represented in Joe Wright's Darkest Hour, starring the terrific Gary Oldman as the megalomaniac Churchill, and Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. Despite the contrasting and at point even conflicting perspectives they provide, both the films found a place in the nominations speaks volumes of the inclusiveness that the Academy aims to incorporate into the Oscars.

Stills from Darkest Hour and Dunkirk

Stills from Darkest Hour and Dunkirk

Both these films operate on parallel narratives. Dunkirk throws light on the plight of hundreds of soldiers confined to the Dunkirk island surrounded by German war planes. On the other hand, Darkest Hour offers a sneak peek into what went down behind the scenes at the House of Commons when Churchill assured the country that its soldiers were, on the contrary, on the verge of victory.

In Darkest Hour, Churchill is shown to be completely aware of the impending ill fate of his soldiers at Dunkirk. But he continues to sing laurels for their valour and inevitable victory march when he addresses the nation on the radio or in his famous House of Commons speeches. The idea behind the same, while putting the lives of his soldiers at risk, is to give hope to the citizens in the times of war.

Despite repeated suggestions from the parliamentarians, Churchill blatantly refuses to call off the war, consider negotiating peace with Adolf Hitler or asking his soldiers to retreat. Even after he orders Operation Dynamo (the Dunkirk evacuation), he continues to give his countrymen the impression that the Allied Powers, particularly the UK, have an upper hand in the war.


On the other hand, Nolan gives the audience a glimpse of what is arguably the harsh ground reality. His Dunkirk starts with a soldier running away in fear as he stares death in the face. Bodies are strewn all over the island and the remaining soldiers are desperate to evacuate and retreat at all costs. There are only two war planes that fight with the Germans and come to the soldiers' rescue. However, when pilot's plane crashes into the sea, even he resolves to run away than going back to the island in order to save his fellow men.

While Darkest Hour is marked by long, demonstrative speeches of Churchill, Dunkirk has little to say in terms of dialogue. The entire film is aurally populated with sounds of the barrel, the war planes and desperate cries of the soldiers in crisis. While Darkest Hour documents the incident largely through the eyes of one man, Nolan admits Dunkirk projects communal spirit. While Darkest Hour gives hope, Dunkirk shows the reality.

A still from Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk

A still from Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk

Both these films end with the famous "We'll fight on the beaches" speech by Churchill. The verbose yet moving speech by the prime minister receives a roaring applause from the parliamentarians and is said to have dispelled despair and provide the countrymen hope to hang on to. But the same speech is heard in the background (with no visual sign of Churchill) in Dunkirk, when the evacuated soldiers return to the UK and much to their surprise, are received with honour as opposed to the disappointment that is expected after retreat.

It is at this point that both these films coincide.

Both the graphs intersect when the people of the UK, charged by Churchill's soul-stirring, hope-instilling speeches, welcome the retreated soldiers with open arms. What the soldiers considered a desperate attempt to save their lives (which were insensitively put on the line by the government) is upheld as war wisdom. In the eyes of the countrymen, the soldiers chose to return so that they could fight another day. As Churchill famously said, "This was their finest hour". While, in fact, it was their Darkest Hour.

All images from YouTube.

Updated Date: Feb 20, 2018 11:32:34 IST